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Men’s Basketball: Wildcats hand Irish first loss

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, December 9, 2010

LOUISVILLE, KY. – For a few fleeting minutes, Ben Hansbrough could not miss. The senior guard hit five of his seven first-half 3-point attempts.

Then, the hoop closed on No. 23 Notre Dame, as Hansbrough and company went more than 12 minutes without a field goal, allowing No. 18 Kentucky to overcome an 11-point deficit and jump out to a lead that it rode all the way to a 72-58 victory Wednesday night.

“Defensively I thought we gave ourselves a heck of a chance in the second half, but we missed some stuff around the basket, which was really deflating,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We missed some clean jump shots from some guys who we want shooting it. If we are going to beat a team like this, we’re going to have to make more of those.”

Over a nearly 15-minute span – encompassing the last 4:44 of the first half and the opening 10 minutes of the second half – Kentucky (6-2) went on a 26-6 run that flipped the score from 38-27 in Notre Dame’s favor to 53-44 toward the Wildcats. The Irish (8-1) only managed to add to the scoreboard during that run when Hansbrough and senior forward Tyrone Nash knocked down two free throws apiece, and sophomore forward Jack Cooley found himself open for a two-handed dunk. Cooley’s dunk ended an 0-for-11 stretch by Notre Dame to open the second half.

“I really have to give Kentucky credit defensively,” Brey said. “I thought they really defended us. They took Ben [Hansbrough] away in the second half, they face-guarded him. It is probably the most size we played against defensively, and length and intensity.”

Hansbrough led the Irish with 21 points, only adding those two free throws to his to first-half total of 19.

“I didn’t get cold. I didn’t have any looks,” Hansbrough said of his second half drop-off. “They just put one guy on me and face-guarded me the entire time, basically said don’t let him touch it.

“I’m not sure they were expecting me to come out and be lights out like that. They made some good adjustments at half.”

Hansbrough was not Notre Dame’s only hot hand in the first half, as the Irish shot 56 percent from the field. In the second half, that tally plummeted to 20 percent. Of its 30 field goal attempts, Notre Dame made only six, including one-of-13 from three.

During the game-deciding run, the Wildcats found nearly every way to score: put-backs, 3-pointers, fast break lay-ups. Freshman forward Terrence Jones led Kentucky with 27 points and 17 rebounds, while his classmate, guard Brandon Knight, added 20 points and five assists.

“Jones is an amazing talent,” Brey said. “We tried zones, doubling. He passes or makes some jump shots. Neither one of those guys played like freshmen tonight — Jones or Knight.”

Notre Dame led 38-27 after two free throws from fourth-year forward Tim Abromaitis. Kentucky began its crucial run with a 13-2 spurt to close the half.

“Finishing the half hurt us,” Brey said. “The momentum we lost there right before halftime really hurt us.”

After that, Brey said he hoped to minimize any further damage and hedge his bets on Notre Dame finding its stroke from deep once more.

“We couldn’t afford to let 3’s go in, or we’d never close the gap,” he said. “We could live with some twos or some jump-hooks around the bucket, and then if we hit a couple 3’s, and I think we could do that, then we’d make a run.”

Instead, only senior guard Scott Martin hit a 3-pointer at the 7:56 mark late in the second half, as the Irish learned something they haven’t dealt with all season, freshman guard Eric Atkins said.

“We learned that we’re not going to be undefeated this year,” Atkins said.